Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Buying ebooks in Japan, part 2

So, the Rakuten thing was, in the end, a... partial success at most.

I still have very little idea of what was going on technically bar my own guesses, but then I didn't actually ask for the specifics of their technology.

As a reminder, I began with an English Kobo account linked to a Yahoo email address. I then ended up with a Japanese Rakuten-Kobo account linked to a Gmail account. My Kobo device could only be registered with one of these accounts at a time, so it wasn't possible to view both sets of books on the same device.

The customer service people explained that they thought they could find a way to unify my 'libraries' (the books I've bought from Kobo and Rakuten-Kobo respectively) into a single account. I could then read books from both Kobo and Rakuten-Kobo on the same However, that account would be assigned to one country. For complicated and annoying legal reasons, most booksellers can only sell their books (including electronic ones) within a single country. For this reason, I'd only be able to access the account while I was in that country, and any books from the wrong country would be unavailable anywhere else. This was, as you might imagine, Not Okay.

I eventually worked out that although I can't load Japanese books onto my English Kobo device, I can set the Kobo desktop software to link to my Japanese account. This allows me to read the books on my computer. It's a very poor solution on a broad scale, but it does solve the immediate problem. I have closed my correspondence with Kobo.

However, I'm basically going to have to advise anyone visiting Japan that:

  1. You should not bother trying to buy ebooks from Rakuten-obo, even if you have a Kobo account.
  2. You should not bother buying books from any other Japanese publisher unless you are willing for your books to be unavailable as soon as you leave the country. As far as I can establish (not, admittedly, very far), all the notable Japanese e-book retailers use heavy DRM and restrict access to your account based on your computer's current location.
  3. I was unable to find any Japanese retailers who do not use DRM. Not only DRM, but app-based DRM. You will need the retailer's own proprietary software to read any ebooks. There don't currently seem to be any Japanese equivalents of Smashwords, Baen or other publishers who sell ebooks that you can just use, unless they're so small that their output is probably not useful to the casual reader.
  4. Essentially, it seems that currently buying Japanese ebooks is a complete waste of time and money. They have no interest in making this convenient for you and don't trust you as far as they can throw you, even though you are the one giving them money. This attitude is sadly prevalent in all countries, but I haven't found any exceptions in Japan.
  5. You will almost certainly not be able to access your account from outside the coutnry, which means not only inability to buy new books, but also to download books you already paid for. If you do ignore my advice and buy some, make very sure to download them while you're in-country.

All that being said, it is technically possible to buy books while you're in Japan. People of a certain bolshie inclination will be aware that methods exist to remove DRM and other protections from ebooks, allowing you (rather than the publisher) to control what happens with them - such as where you can read them, using what devices. It's even technically possible to use a proxy server to pretend to be in Japan, in order to buy books. However, these methods are not necessarily strictly legal in a lot of places, and (perhaps more importantly to many readers?) involve an awful lot of hassle. So these aren't exactly a good alternative solution.

At present, the advantages of e-books are not sufficiently exploited to make them worthwhile. Paper books may take up space and cost money to transport (the great advantages of e-books), but a paper book doesn't care where you want to read it. You can buy a paper book from another country and have it sent to you, but cannot buy a digital copy of the same book from that other country (despite the obvious environmental advantages) even though both seem to be functionally identical in that you're buying a book outside the country where the company is licensed to sell it. Why? I dunno.

Sadly, British retailers sell a terrifyingly small amount of non-English literature, mostly the sort of things that appear on exam syllabi and win awards for being thoroughly miserable (thus marking them out as Proper Literature). Linguists, polyglots and expats are still left with the problem that books really need to be imported, as paper items, at a premium, via specialist bookshops or expensive international shipping. Have fun.

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